The fight against the screens: Getting my Life back
As you might know, I recently read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and decided I had to make some changes for the better. And I had already done back then. Now I wanted to keep you posted on first experiences of my experiment and also stress some aspects I left out last time because they didn’t fit nicely in the line of argument: The last blog was, after all, a book review and I didn’t want to inject too much of my own practical applications. This post now is full of them.
Some more theoretical inputs
The attention economy uses psychological tricks to maximize screen time. Rebel against this enslavement by only taking what you need and finding ways to ignore the other bids for attention (notifications, always being available via your phone, etc.). Maybe get a second phone if you want to keep the apps, but leave the one with all the apps at home. Bring only the indispensable with you every day and read a book instead of mindless scrolling. How much more there is to life when our time isn’t drained from us by social media and binge watching series.
How much more time would you have for activities you actually care about without being glued to a screen? Passive recreation robs you of time and leaves you more drained than before. In any case, Newport lists a lot of real life examples from people who adopted this lifestyle, so you might want to adopt what has worked for them.
Turning FOMO (fear of missing out) into JOMO (joy of missing out)
Newports TED talk offers 3 arguments for quitting social media are actually retorts to common objections to his message that we should quit social media:
- You won’t end up a hermit without these “fundamental technologies”. Social media is like a slotmachine, a tool which will make you addicted and a good source of money for the attention economy. They sell your screen time and data.
- Your work networking won’t be harmed, you will not be invisible in the economy. Since, per his last book Deep Work (review to come), we know that the economy wants high value produced from deep work, not superficial outcomes like networking.
- It’s not harmless. It causes anxiety and robs you of time. It ruins your capacity for concentration. Nobody can focus with a slotmachine in their pocket. Don’t let your fear of missing out cause you to inadvertently suffer from these negative impacts.
Realization 1: The smartphone is not your friend, so get rid of it
Like Astrid wrote in her Selfcare Part I post, you have to plan your free time. If you don’t, somebody else will plan your day for you but it will contain none of the items which are important to you. Is that what you want?
She also suggested using the Pomodoro technique or setting your phone to flight mode. Flight mode is actually a good thing. Or just put the phone in another room. You will probably be too lazy to get up and get it just because of a little habitual urge to check your phone. I sometimes find it hard to ignore the phone but when I’m on holiday and don’t have wifi, I don’t need it any more after a few days. The point here is that you need to find a balance between being available at work and unavailable in your free time. But these spaces intersect so much. I use my phone for social stuff too. This, of course, I want to do at home. But then I go on to check my (work) email as well. Then I get distracted by social stuff at work.
But I really don’t want any of those things. The idea of being ‘available’ while at work might work out for an office worker. But not for someone required to do ‘deep work’, like writing a dissertation. (Deep Work is another book of Newport’s which I will review and discuss as well, because it’s so central to the PhD life.) Being available and instantly responsive will lead you to do superficial work which, by defintion, produces sub-standard results which are in no way unique and thus, basically, will not advance your career.
So one of the main things I did, like I indicated in the last post already, was getting a light phone 2. The point is, it won’t come until July (at the earliest) and I really can’t wait. I want things to change for the better now, so I made some changes and have tried to formulate them in a actionable way so you can follow them too, if you like.
Realization 2: Screens (streaming and social media) rob me of my time and rest
Like Newport stresses, they are in no way as harmless as we often tell ourselves. While Newport’s reasons are helpful and convincing already, I wanted to add one of my own. These apps don’t only steal my time and attention. They steal the time I have to do some things which are incredibly important to me: getting some substantial reading done, planning, language learning, exercise, good eating and keeping my appartment tidy. These things are actually super-important to me and massively contribute to my overall happiness. When I don’t get around to doing them, I feel horrible about myself and stressed. When I do, I am living the life I really want.
Actively paying attention to my digital habits now made me realize that it is exactly these digital habits which stop me from doing those things. The sacrifice I make (mindlessly) using these tools (to no discernible end) is pretty big. Those 2h a day are the two hours I’m missing to be my best self and live the life I want. That’s crazy! How could I let this happen until now? Probably because clutching to those screens and avoiding boredom is the lazy, easy default and it’s facilitated by some psychological factors.
But then again, these companies earn money by holding me back from being my best self and living the way I want. It’s actually disgusting! Yet, it is still hard to resist. I notice when the moments are when I usually would have switched on the tablet to stream a series. It is quite apparent to me now why it works. It’s easy. A nice default to mindlessly “relax”. You don’t have the initial hurdle of turining towards active rest. It all happens on the couch. It’s so easy. And so detrimental.
Reaction 1: Streaming is limited to 2 episodes OR 1 film per week and only in company. I can’t watch alone anymore. This will hopefully stop binges.
TV and series work because it’s an easy default thing to do to relax. In our leisure time we are at our most vulnerable to attention predators, so we end up stealing our own time. Then we’re annoyed we don’t have time left after work. We do have time. We just don’t use it well. Ergo my new rule: No more than 2 episodes of a series per week. Take time to disconnect completely instead.
Eating well, for example, happens when I get around to cooking and taking the time to prepare a nice meal. When I have the default of wanting to watch another episode of a series, I just quickly grab something so I can get back on the couch. But actually, now that I don’t have this opportunity, I remember that I really enjoy taking time to cook and eat well. Like it is said in Make Time, the next book I will review, it’s all about changing your defaults.
Also, not watching series is just that little bit of extra time I need to keep up with language learning (which I am very passionate about but have difficulty finding the time lately) and reading more which is also a goal I only achieve on-off so far. Hopefully this will change with my new habits in place.
Reaction 2: I vow not to scroll.
Like I hinted in the last post, I thought it might turn out to be problematic for me to delete all social media. Some of them (like Twitter) I had just recently joined to advertise my blogging activities. After some evaluation however, I am pretty sure that I end up spending at least 2h on them daily in mindless scrolling sessions. It’s not so much the constant checking which is the problem (it only sometimes is). It is the infinite scrolling which leads me to stay on the apps longer than I had intended. And it’s so hard to resist once you’ve allowed yourself more than 5min on the app. Mostly, I am quite successful so far trying to only check notifications (not all that often) and then leave the app straightaway. I don’t let myself get on the dashboard anymore at all. As you can imagine, it doesn’t always work. But I think that even now, in this imperfect implementation, I am already saving tons of time.
More tips to counter constant distraction which have worked for me
Another smaller measure I took (and had already taken beforehand) is to have email filters in place for my work email. This helps distinguish spam from urgent or important mail already at reception. It helps me with the urge to check my email. So now, when I open the folder, a quick glance is enough to determine whether anything requires an immediate answer. However, I have become pretty selective with that, especially on weekends. Mostly, only my boss gets answers rightaway because he usually only writes when he’s really pressed for the answer. So much for getting distracted by work email.
That, I feel I already have under control at this point and I also don’t feel any inclination to relapse. Email is part of the “busy bandwagon” (Make Time review about to come soon…) which I have come to reject. This was a difficult thing to do in terms of mindset but not difficult to maintain once it was done.
Batch administrative tasks
I do my administrative stuff only on Wednesdays, the day which is already full with meetings anyway. This works out super-well for me and batching administrative tasks and answering email is a widely recommended tactic. Also, I have paired this “admin day” with my “office hours” for social interaction, like detailed in the post on digital minimalism. It’s the same day our PhD lunch takes place which I hugely look forward to, so it provides me with a highlight to look forward to in the jungle of otherwise annonying office work. I’ve done this for a few months now. I still sometimes answer urgent stuff during the week, but overall it works really well and I wouldn’t want to go back.
Delete and Unsubscribe
Also, another one-time thing to do: Unsubscribe from “dangerous” newsletters and feeds. Delete problematic apps for good. You can still access most info from your browser. But then, better don’t carry a phone which has a browser. Change the default to an environment with less temptation if you’re really serious about getting your life back.
The difficult parts: Things to do instead of relapsing
I often find myself engaging in meaningless (re-)activity, i.e. mindless scrolling or streaming, when I feel “too tired to do anything”. But hey, when we’re “too tired to do anything”, why don’t we just go to bed or take a nap? I mean, that’s what our body wants, right? Our culture’s new default option of on-screen reactive unrest, however, will not make us any more awake. The only thing it really does is pass the time. So unless you want your time gone with no noticable effect having been achieved in the meantime, you’d best skip those kinds of behaviours altogether, right? But then, why don’t we and why is it so hard? Why is it generally seen as laziness to take a nap instead, even though everybody knows that studies have shown that we only do real work approximately 10% of our “work” time and that naps actually make us more productive? In any case, I will try to nap more often or go to bed early instead of engaging in screen-related time-wasting behaviours. Let’s see how this works after the holidays when it’s more difficult to nap due to work responsibilities…
Identifying the culprits: Underlying tendencies
In Make Time. How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky argue that there are two destructive tendencies of our time, traps we ought to avoid at all costs. And that is on the one hand, “the busy bandwagon”, i.e. our culture of constant business and “infinity pools”, i.e. scolling dashboards which refresh themselves for all eternity, providing an endless amount of distraction. In the introduction to Make Time, the authors write:
“Nobody ever looked at an empty calendar and said, “The best way to spend this time is by cramming it full of meetings!” or got to work in the morning and thought, “Today I’ll spend hours on Facebook!” Yet that’s exactly what we do. Why?”
On-screen passive leisure activities are engineered to make you spend more time than you intended. Pre-bedtime blue light ruins your sleep. For me, it doesn’t seem to directly ruin my sleep but screens still screw with my natural daily rhythm somehow. The possibility of infinite scrolling or the ever self-starting new episodes of a series will make me go to bed a lot later than I would be tired. Often, they wake me up again at a late hour, so I can’t sleep and continue using those tools. It’s a vicious circle. Then I get up too late the next morning (which is guaranteed to be the start of an unproductive day) and, of course, am awake until late at night where digital attention seekers are already waiting to reap my life time from me.
So I succumb to both destructive tendencies: The “infinity pools” cause me to lose time in the first place. Then, the next morning, I am confronted with the “busy bandwagon” mindset in Academia and get stressed because I’m not productive enough. Living up to my own expections is hard, however, when I didn’t sleep well. Frustration. I allow myself some evening screen-indulgence because the day was so hard. Circle repeats itself.
Amping up your high-quality social life to fight Digital Addiction
In this TED talk about how addition really works, it is pointed out that even substance abuse (compared to which habitual addiction to a smartphone is way less severe) doesn’t work the way we think. Addiction has got less to do with the thing we’re addicted to than the environment we live in. In a perfect environment, neither our bodies nor our minds even care about alluring, potentially addictive things. This perfect world has a lot to do with social life.
“Disconnection is the driver of addiction.” “We’ve traded floor space for friends, stuff for connections.” – “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
In an experiment with rats, it turned out that rats with empty cages were very prone to drug addiction and overdoses, whereas rats in fun cages that had everything they might want (connection to others, toys, etc.), they did not care for the drugs at all. Even though behavioural addictions like our screen addiction are not the same as substance abuse, the same methods might help to overcome them. We engange in addiction-style behaviours when we feel disconnected. Once we connect, there is no more reason for us to cling onto a screen. And I really felt that this is true. I said that I sometimes find it more easy to disconnect on a holiday and we all have probably already found ourselves getting distracted by our phones despite being in a social situation where it’s actually impolite. This TED talk made me realize that I don’t need my phone when with people I find socially stimulating who give me a deep sense of connection whereas, as an introvert at heart, hanging out with loose contacts stresses me rathering than being relaxing. This is why I sometimes cling to the phone in these situations. Like people cling to cigarettes in times of stress. This is also why Newports advice on reforming our social lives together with our digital habits is so crucial. First of all, if we don’t manage to create an engaging social life for us, chances aren’t so good we succeed in our digital endeavours. And also, it helps us stay on track.
Games didn’t work: They’re passive recreation and engineered for addiction all the same
Another approach I have tried is replacing social media scrolling wit playing a (digital) game. Scrolling, I had identified, meant that I just really wanted a break. So wouldn’t playing a game be a better choice than mindless scrolling? At least allowing myself to play a gave was an acknowledgement of the fact that I wanted a break and to celebrate giving myself one. But the problem is, games of today are engineered to be just as addictive as every other on-screen activitiy. Their goal, too, is to maximize your screen time. So games often aren’t playable without constantly waiting by the phone. Like my Harry Potter Mystery game that I really wanted to play because I like Harry Potter. It was quite disappointing to me that I had to stop because it just robbed me of so much of my time and didn’t really leave me more relaxed, if I’m being honest. It got me through a very stressful time and I really needed some diversion. But I am determined that there must be a better way.
Avoid the multi-purpose trap
Newport warns reforming our digital lives using quick “life hacks” from technology journalism. He thinks we should rather think about the bigger issues and underlying psychology. Why did it come this far in the first place? What do a need 122 apps for?
Newport stresses the fact that the biggest culprits in our digital tools are multi-purpose devices. While this seems to be their biggest pro, it is actually the main reason we over-indulge and have a hard time regulating our use. Sure, I can put my phone away to get work done on my laptop. But then, all the bad sites are also accessible from my laptop. Still, try to re-mono-purpose your devices as much as possible.
Switch off the internet if all else fails
I could buy a time-switch plug (10€ on Amazon) to have my internet switched of automatically. But then again, you sometimes really need it. I will get that plug anyway. No internet before 08:00 or after 18:00. I decided not to work evenings anymore anyway. This could leave me with tons of time to do something which is actually meaningful to me.
Social media is a source of entertainment which, like a slotmachine, treats you to a few shiny gadgets but really it’s traded against minutes of your time and glances into your personal life – data which can be sold. Social media giants hire “attention engineers” who use techniques from the gambling world to make their products as addictive as possible.
Series make you binge because it’s easier to keep watching than to stop. Scrolling gives you infinite diversion. So refuse to scroll. Avoid your “dashboards” like a deadly enemy. I’m trying hard, but it’s hard to be successful here, especially if you have gotten used to scrolling social media as a diversion when you don’t want to work.
I hope my experiments have inspired you to start a journey of your own. Maybe you can take away some of the tips I learned about for your own (PhD) life. Also, feel free to comment and share your own experiences.